Phantom (2013) a (mildly) belated review

One of my all time favorite movie reviews was made by a now forgotten (by me) local movie reviewer on television who noted of 1989’s James Cameron directed The Abyss that it was like watching a marathon runner having the run of his life and being way, waaaay out in front and heading to the finish line in triumph…only to stumble and fall just before the end.  I love and remember that review so vividly because it perfectly encapsulated the movie to me.

Ironically enough, that film featured actor Ed Harris in (double irony) a film set for the most part underwater.  So here we have the barely-released-to-theaters film Phantom which features Mr. Harris in the title role of Demi, the Captain of an old, nearly obsolete Russian submarine during the height of the Cold War who has been sent on a mysterious mission that might well result in the end of the world as we know it.  And like The Abyss, Phantom is a film that draws you in and keeps your attention…until it blows it big time at the very end.

The mission Demi is sent on appears, on the surface (ha!) to be a normal patrol.  However, a few last minute -and mysterious- additions to his crew, including Bruni (David Duchovny), appear to have some kind of ulterior secret mission in the works.  Are these new members of the crew part of a zealot Stasi group?  Is their mission sanctioned by the government…or are they a rogue group out to start a war?  And what of Captain Demi?  We find that he suffers from epileptic seizures and may have a thin grasp of what is real and what isn’t.

All these elements mixed together form a potent, engaging brew that kept me intrigued as Phantom played out.  This is old school movie making, where the action is limited but the tension and suspense are slowly built up, scene after scene.  Ed Harris is pretty damn good in the title role.  David Duchovny is good, though perhaps not quite as flashy in a role that required him to for the most part display an emotionless poker face throughout, leaving audiences to wonder whether he is good or evil.

And for approximately 90 or so minutes of the movie’s 98 minute run time I was thoroughly engaged.

But then came the movie’s climax and denouement and boy oh boy oh boy did things fall apart.  The movie’s climax committed the lesser sin, being decent yet not-as-exciting-as-it-should-have-been all things considering.  A better director and/or editor could have made this sequence a standout, with gunfire, factions fighting against each other for control of the vessel, another submarine taking aim at our protagonist’s vessel, and quite literally the fate of the world in the balance.  Unfortunately, the sequence plays out in a rather drab way, ending without being all that terribly exciting.

And then came the denouement.

Wow.  Just…wow.  In the history of bad ideas, this one is right up there.  I know the movie’s makers were trying to give us an emotional release, but this sequence was not only stupid but, frankly, borderline insulting….at least to me.

To describe it involves considerable SPOILERS, so I’ll leave you with the film’s trailer and get to that in a moment…

You still there?




Ok, so this is the deal:  Duchovny and his boys have crafted a scenario where Demi’s submarine is thought to have been already sold to the Chinese.  Thus, when he launches a nuclear missile at the U.S., it will be thought the submarine was under Chinese command and a war between China and the United States will result, a war that his character coldly notes will be the only nuclear war Russia can “win”.  This is really clever storytelling, in my humble opinion.

However, Demi and his faithful staff manage to send out a distress signal which brings in another Russian sub.  The Russians are by now aware of what’s going on with the rogue group and are intent on sinking Demi’s sub and stopping them from launching their missile and starting a war.  Duchovny’s rogue group is overtaken but Demi’s submarine is incapacitated and settles on the bottom of the sea (actually on top of a sea mountain).  The crew is stuck and air is running out.  Demi orders one of his crew to suit up and swim to the surface to try to get a rescue party down to the stricken sub.  In the film’s final minutes, we see the crew on top of the sub and the sub in port, seemingly rescued.

Not so fast…

Turns out the entire crew is dead.  The sub is indeed in port, having been salvaged, but now the corpses are being brought out.  The ghostly crew stands on the sub, watching as Demi’s wife and child come to pay respects to those lost.  The person they sent out of the sub wound up being the only survivor and thus was able to tell authorities what really happened on board, and that Demi and is crew did not go rogue.


A ghost crew, watching as their bodies are removed from the sub?!  Demi’s ghost tearfully watching his wife and child, then saluting the surviving crewmate?!

Double Ugh.

Maybe this won’t sit so bad for other viewers, but for me this ending was beyond silly.  It was manipulative and childish in concept, an ending that threw away all the good will the movie managed to offer throughout the rest of its run time.

To those who still want to watch Phantom, please please please shut it off the moment Ed Harris sees the light.

You’ll be doing yourself a favor.

On Joss Whedon…

So director/writer Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Avengers) offered some opinions regarding popular films and, more specifically, criticism directed at them.  His first major comment, regarding Empire Strikes Back, went like this:

Empire committed the cardinal sin of not actually ending. Which at the time I was appalled by and I still think it was a terrible idea. Well, it’s not an ending. It’s a Come Back Next Week, or in three years. And that upsets me. I go to movies expecting to have a whole experience. If I want a movie that doesn’t end I’ll go to a French movie. That’s a betrayal of trust to me. A movie has to be complete within itself, it can’t just build off the first one or play variations.”

(You can read more about this here:

I couldn’t agree with Mr. Whedon more.  It is my opinion that if you intend to end a film (or a book, for that matter) with the glimmer of a possibility of a sequel, you should nonetheless make sure that whatever work you are creating is as complete as possible on its own terms.  Compare, for example, the original Star Wars to Empire Strikes Back.  In Star Wars, the film clearly gives us a hint of a sequel (the main villain, Darth Vader, gets away), yet the film accomplishes everything -storywise- it intended, from setting up the “big danger” and the heroes’ quest to their ultimate triumph in ridding their world of this threat.  Empire, on the other hand, seemed to present a series of events culminating in nothing at all being resolved…and indeed all the characters in flux…until the next film.

Now, does this necessarily diminish the film?  Empire is considered by many to be THE BEST of the Star Wars films, so clearly Lucas and company did something right.  Yet Mr. Whedon’s comments, I feel, are nonetheless on target.  Empire is a film without an ending, and as such is ultimately an incomplete experience…until you see Return of the Jedi.

(An admission:  I am not a big fan of the Star Wars films.  I don’t hate them, mind you, just never got into them as my peers did back in the day.)

Mr. Whedon’s made another comment, this time regarding self-referential humor -and the problem with it- in movies like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.  I find this comment even more intriguing:

A movie has to be complete within itself; it can’t just build off the first one or play variations. You know that thing in Temple of Doom where they revisit the shooting trick? … That’s what you don’t want. And I feel that’s what all of culture is becoming — it’s becoming that moment.

Germain Lussier at /Film takes up Mr. Whedon’s comment and offers a wonderful explanation/examination of what he is essentially saying.  I underlined what I believe really gets to the heart of the matter:

The bigger issue Whedon is getting at here is that Spielberg relied on what had already happened for a cheap joke. Magnify that onto a larger scale and you have Saw VIIThe Amazing Spider-Man reboot, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, and One Direction. Things that are simply copying creative endeavors that have proven to be successful. Whedon’s issue is very few people create something new these days. And, even scarier, no one seems to care. They simply consume the same crap over and over again. This sentiment is a valid one.

(You can read the entire article here:

There is, of course, some irony to be found in Mr. Whedon’s comments, even while I generally agree with them.  Wasn’t Mr. Whedon responsible for a TV show which essentially featured a character versus vampires (and other evils) as threats week in and week out?  And wasn’t that vampire show given a spin off series?  Yes, they were both very entertaining shows, but still.  And wasn’t Cabin in the Woods, a film he produced and co-wrote, essentially a long riff on many horror movie tropes/cliches?  Does one not need to know many of these horror movie tropes/cliches coming into that film to truly appreciate it?

Given that, how is Mr. Whedon’s use of such tropes/cliches to create his work all that different from the same example he points out in Temple of Doom?

Setting that aside, and going back to Mr. Lussier’s wonderful comments, the underlined elements are, in my opinion, the meat of the matter.  Thanks to the internet and new technologies, we live in a society where we are stimulated more than we have ever been, be it via video games or music or movies or shows.  We consume entertainment near constantly, and are always looking for the next fix.

Thing is, the next fix requires an awful lot of work.

Making a TV show or an album or a book or a movie isn’t something you can (in the most vulgar terms) “shit out” in your free time.  It requires hours and hours of heavy work and, once it is ready, there is the very real possibility that it never catches fire and is immediately forgotten or, worse, completely ignored.

Audiences are hard -if not impossible- to judge.  You may work your tail off and come up with something you feel is worthwhile and original and are meet with little more than yawns.  You may do a riff on something currently popular (yesterday it was Vampires, lately it seems to be either Zombies or superheroes) and instantly connect with audiences and have great success.  You may even hit it big with something that wasn’t so big before and, to keep the success going, start making your own spin-offs of said material…over and over again, to keep up your success.

The copying and re-copying of material carries with it, even in these over-stimulated days, diminishing returns.  What was popular can become tiresome and audiences might suddenly decide to turn off.

I suppose pop culture has always worked this way.  There are those who create material that offers a path for others to follow (and, if you want to be blunt about it, rip-off) until that path and creative direction is worn out and the “new” material -whatever that may be- takes over.  Until it becomes old and worn out as well.  Then the new-“new” material takes over, and off we go again…

Worst Baseball Card of All Time…?

When I was very young, I collected a lot of things, from coins to stamps to (of course) books and comic books.

One thing I never got into, however, was collecting baseball cards.

Even so, this story, concerning the “worst baseball card of all time”, had me laughing:

For those too lazy to click the above link (I highly recommend it…the story behind the card, and other examples of terrible sports cards, is worth your time), this is the notorious card:

Bob Hamelin baseball card.

Hard to believe such a terribly, terribly designed card was approved and released.  Not only is the photo itself strictly amateurish, but the flourishes added to the card (in particular the bit at the bottom with the player’s name…covering the player’s mug-shot looking photo and identification!).

Very weird -and hilarious- stuff.

The Man With The Iron Fists (2012) a (mildly) belated review

Back when I was much younger and in High School, local TV stations would often run some wild fare over the weekends.  Among reruns of such fantastic series of yesteryear such as The WIld Wild West, the original (and at that time onlyStar Trek show, Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, etc., those who stuck around until the early evenings, perhaps at about 5 to 6 P.M., were often treated to some really, really crazy Karate/Kung Fu films.

These films were often as outlandish as they were senseless, featuring really bad English dubbing and questionable filmmaking/editing along with some at times memorably impressive acrobatics.  After watching several of the films, I eventually recognized certain actors, but in those early pre-internet days I had little to no idea of these films’ origins.

Fast forward several years and the works of the Shaw Brothers Studios, among others, while perhaps not as well known to the general public as it is to some film afficionados (geeks) like myself, are warmly regarded for their at times cheesy movie fare.

It appears that rapper RZA saw some of the same stuff I did when he was young.  He parlayed his success as a musician into the movies, delivering soundtrack material as well as acting in several features and TV shows.  2012’s The Man With The Iron Fists was his first directorial feature, and his love of those cheesy martial arts films of yesterday is clearly in evidence.

The film deals with Blacksmith (RZA) a…well…blacksmith in an ancient, small Chinese town where a rather large gold shipment is about to pass through.  He is hired by some shady characters to craft weapons which, in turn, are used against the man who is to watch over this shipment.  The betrayal brings several parties to this town, from the good to the bad to the just plain unbelievable.  Yes, we have an African American blacksmith in an ancient Chinese village (this is explained), but soon after he is joined by Russell Crowe as the enigmatic Jack Knife, a British (?) subject whose loyalties are revealed in the film’s later acts.

Over the course of the film alliances are forged (ouch!) and the good guys eventually confront the bad while the fate of the gold lies in the balance.

So, is the film worth your time?

For someone like myself, the answer is a yes…with reservations.  The film could have been tightened up a lot more, but I did enjoy all the various (outlandish) personalities present and the fight scenes were generally well done.

Where the film fails, sadly, is with RZA himself.  As Blacksmith, RZA is the film’s “hero”, yet while he did a good job directing the feature (he also was responsible for the story and shares screenwriting credits), I felt his acting simply wasn’t all that good.  In Blacksmith we needed an actor strong enough to take on the role and make him stand out over everyone else.  When multiple tragedies befell Blacksmith, we needed to feel sorry for him enough that when he ultimately triumphs, we should be jumping from our chairs in glee.  RZA, however, delivers for the most part a one note sleepy-eyed performance while his character is often lost to the wilder, more engaging work of the actors representing good and evil around him.  Even worse, later in the film when Blacksmith confronts one of the big bad guys, it is also evident his fighting skills aren’t quite up to par with many of the others as well.

Having said that, I have to give RZA credit for putting this Kung Fu fever dream of a film together.  Again, for someone like me who is versed in the films RZA was trying to emulate and offer in tribute, there is much to enjoy.  However, for those not versed in the old Karate/Kung Fu films of yesterday, The Man With The Iron Fists will most likely not resonate.  In the end, I can only offer only a mild recommendation.

51 Pieces of Movie Trivia…

51 pieces of trivia may sound like a lot, but in David Brake’s article for Huffington Post each bit of trivia usually involves as little as a sentence or two and the entire list can be read relatively quickly.  Click on the link if you’re curious:

Of all the ones presented, this is perhaps my favorite piece:

24. The director of Cannibal Holocaust had to prove in court that the actors were still alive and didn’t get killed during the movie.

Back in 1999, when The Blair Witch Project was just being released to theaters, a friend of mine noted that this film’s plot was essentially a rip off of Cannibal Holocaust.  In The Blair Witch Project, a group of students go off into the woods to record the legend of a witch and, we’re told at the beginning of the film, never were seen again.  The video recordings of their final hours were recovered and that’s what’s presented to us.  In Cannibal Holocaust, the same essentially happens:  A group of explorers go out into the South American forests and are never seen again, but the video footage of their last trip is found and that’s what we’re seeing.

I eventually got a copy of Cannibal Holocaust and, with considerable trepidation, put it on.  To this day, it is the only film I’ve ever turned off without getting to the end and never returned to.  A little too gross (I can’t stomach seeing animals actually killed on camera) and silly.

Yet, for those with a very strong stomach, this movie may be for you!

A single photon of light…

Fascinating article by Charles Q. Choi and presented at regarding a new manner in which to search for signs of intelligent life, via faint laser pulses in contrast to the larger, isolated bursts they were looking for before:

Perhaps the most fascinating quote of the article is this one:

“We assumed that aliens would use the simplest possible way of attracting our attention, one already implemented in seafaring since ancient times using lighthouses — that is, periodic light pulses,” (laser scientist Walter) Leeb said.

The key is repetition in the signals, faint as they may be, which would indicate something not necessarily found in nature.

As I said, fascinating stuff!

Now, on to the other side of the coin:  Top Ten Alien Encounters…Debunked:

Hopscotch (1980) a (very) belated review

Edward Snowden.  Glen Greenwald.  Julian Assange.  Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning.  Wikileaks.  The NSA…

The names and institutions have been all over the news of late and, unless you’re getting reaaaaally tired of reading and/or seeing stories about leaking of highly confidential government material and are in the mood for a comedy featuring the same concept and some top notch acting talent, you could do far worse than settle in and give Hopscotch a try.

Based on a far more serious thriller written by Brain Garfield (also the author of Death Wish), the theatrical version of Hopscotch deals with Miles Kendrig (Walter Matthau) an older CIA agent whose boss, the crotchety Myerson (Ned Beatty), decides is over the hill and should spend the remainder of his career before retiring working behind a desk.  Lined up to immediately replace him is Cutter (Sam Waterston), Kendrig’s understudy.

Instead of doing as he’s told, Kendrig pulls his personnel file, destroys it, and heads off to Europe and meets up with an old flame, Isobel (Glenda Jackson).  He’s not sure what he’s going to do next and, upon meeting his friendly rival from the other side, Russian agent Yaskov (Herbert Lom), Kendrig comes upon the idea of writing a memoir of his experiences in the spy agency…warts and all.

Once finished with the first chapter of his manuscript, Kendrig sends it out to all the major intelligence agencies of the world with a promise of sending each subsequent chapter to them as it is completed.  Naturally, the revelations within that chapter -and what is to follow- pushes Myerson over the edge and what follows is a manhunt to find -and eliminate- Kendrig before the whole book is completed and all the “dirty tricks” of the agency are exposed.

Though the film implies more than one spy agency (and therefore government) is out to get Kendrig, the focus of the film is on the games played between our renegade agent and the CIA.  Matthau is rock solid in the title role and Ned Beatty is wonderfully vulgar as his ex-boss and nemesis.  I have to give the film a lot of credit in the decision to portray Sam Waterston’s Cutter as a protege that is sympathetic to his elder spymaster.  The character could easily have been presented as a typical “young gun out to get the older gun” but is instead the only person on the side chasing Kendrig down to actually understand what he’s up to and wish he come to no harm.  It is also his character that delivers what is perhaps the film’s biggest laugh at the movie’s climax (It is also his character’s final line).  Glenda Jackson, as Kendrig’s love interest, is a delight, but be warned her appearances alongside Walter Matthau aren’t quite as many as one would have hoped.  In fact, her character’s role is relatively minor when all is said and done.

Hopscotch does show its age and unfolds at a pace that many younger viewers may find too dull.  Having said that, I personally found the film a delight to watch and, if I have any complaint at all, it is that the film could have actually been expanded (again, showing the “other sides” going after Kendrig).  Recommended.

I’ve presented the trailer below but, a warning: Most of the film’s funnier bits are given away here.  Just goes to show how trailers, even trailers to thirty three year old movies, had a tendency sometimes of giving away a little too much.

4 Inappropriately Awful Final Movies of Great Actors

A fascinating list from regarding the above:

I found it eerie that the last John Candy and Chris Farley comedy films were, at least in terms of setting and the fact that there were two leads, eerily similar.  They also shared the morbid similarity of having these actors die before the film was completed, therefore necessitating considerable (and, by the looks of it, failed) work to get the picture completed.  I haven’t seen either Wagons East or Almost Heroes yet recall when both were released to considerable critical scorn and very little financial success.  A sad last legacy for both successful comedic actors.

As for Raul Julia in Street Fighter, I always wondered why he took on that particular role and the article offers the explanation:  His kids loved the video game and therefore he wanted to be in the film.  Raul Julia was a great, very talented actor and, truly, Street Fighter was a bad, bad way to finish a promising career…not that he envisioned it as his finale.

As for Sean Connery and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen…I don’t understand all the hatred directed at this film.  No, it isn’t a classic by any stretch of the imagination, but I don’t think it is quite as bad a film as many make it out to be.  I suspect much of the hatred directed at it comes from fans of the much more ambitious original Alan Moore penned comic book that inspired the movie.  Yes, they took Mr. Moore’s writings and dumbed them down considerably to make the film, but all in all the film didn’t really strike me as the stinker so many people feel it is.  I would quickly hasten to add that neither do I feel the movie is a particularly great accomplishment, either.  A quick look at Sean Connery’s many films on IMDB shows he has had a hand in several movies I feel were far, far worse than this one.  The Avengers (1998), Just Cause (1995), Highlander II: The Quickening (1991), and  Family Business (1989) are just a few he was involved in toward the later third of his career that were, IMHO, far worse.

An actor not mentioned in this list but should be is Steve McQueen.  During the 1960’s and early 1970’s he was one of Hollywood’s biggest, best known actors.  While still at the height of his success, however, he withdrew from the public eye and seemed to all but disappear.  1974’s all star disaster film The Towering Inferno featured Mr. McQueen alongside his longtime acting rival Paul Newman in the starring role, but it would be four long years later that Mr. McQueen would reappear in the never theatrically released An Enemy of the People.  That film was shelved by the studios and, because there was no home video market in those days, it wasn’t until 1980 that audiences once again saw Mr. McQueen, first in Tom Horn (a cowboy film that was a box office and critical dud) and then in his final film, the very mediocre The Hunter before succumbing that very same year to cancer.

The Hunter is one of those films that should have been a hell of a lot better than it was but suffers from a very weak script.  Watching that film fills me with sadness at what could have been.

Bullet to the Head (2012) a (mildly) belated review

I suspect most people, while about to watch a “new” movie, approach the subject before them with a certain amount of optimism and/or good will.  They hope the film they’re about to see is, at the very least, worth their time.  One feels even more optimistic about the film they’re about to watch when one is a fan of the work of one or more of the people involved in the film.

In the case of last year’s barely-theatrically-released Bullet to the Head, directed by Walter Hill, I’ve noted several times in several posts to being a big fan of his movies.  Starting with 1975’s Hard Times (his directorial debut) and going through such classics (in my opinion) as The Driver, The Warriors, The Shadow Riders, Southern Comfort48 Hours (perhaps his biggest hit) and up to 1984’s Streets of Fire, Mr. Hill had quite a run of incredible, testosterone fueled hits.

Following Streets of Fire, however, Mr. Hill hit something of a rough patch.  While a few of the films that followed had their moments, the overall quality of many of the theatrical films he directed after this point was noticeably…less.

Still, I’ve kept an eye out for his new works.  When I heard he had paired up with Sylvester Stallone to make an action film/crime drama, I was intrigued.  I eagerly awaited word of when the film would be released, fully intent on giving it a whirl while it was in theaters.  Time passed.  Then more time.

And more.

It seemed obvious the movie studio bankrolling the film wasn’t all that thrilled with the final product.  BY the time Bullet to the Head was finally released theatrically, it was done with little to no major promotion and, subsequently (and not surprisingly), the movie disappeared rather quickly before reaching the home video market.

Did the film deserve this fate?

When I put the film into my DVD player, I hoped for the best while, in the back of my mind, I braced for the worst.  For the first twenty or so minutes of the film, things looked good.

Mr. Stallone plays James Bonomo, a hired killer.  He and his younger partner take on their latest target and eliminate him.  Afterwards, they go to a bar to unwind and pick up the second half of the payment for their job.  Bonomo’s partner, however, is viciously knifed and killed.  The assassin, Keegan (Jason Momoa), tries to do the same with Bonomo but fails to take down the more senior of the two hit men.

Enter Taylor Kwan (Sung Kang), an out of town cop who arrives to investigate Bonomo and his partner’s latest victim.  Turns out he was Kwan’s boozy ex-partner and a man who may have incriminating evidence related to some very powerful interests within this big city.  Kwan quickly connects Bonomo to the hit and manages to meet with him.  Both men, interestingly enough, seek the same thing: The people who hired Bonomo to perform this latest kill.

Thus, we have the set up for this buddy action/adventure/crime drama:  A by the book cop and a bloody hit man are forced to partner up to get to the bottom of this case.

Sadly, despite starting well enough, the film loses steam with each passing minute.  Both Bonomo and Kwan are simply not very intriguing characters and their “bickering” is never terribly funny or engaging.  The story, too, unfolds in a highly predictable manner, offering few surprises along the way to a rather unimpressive climax.

While I wish I could say that Mr. Hill has delivered a film worthy of his early classics, Bullet to the Head is ultimately a very average film.  It is certainly not terrible, but neither is it ever all that much more than mediocre.  A real pity.